I woke up at 2:30 am after a solid 6 hours of sleep. I went outside to see the Himalayan sky. There are no street lights for miles, thus the stars are extra bright here in the mountains. What a beautiful sky! The Milky Way is a swath of crystal dust across the sky.

Our lodge in the village of Phakding is on the banks of the river called Dud Cosi. Dud Cosi means “Milk River” – a name that refers to the hazy whitish color it possesses as a result of the pulverized stone that is suspended in the river. The stone “flour” is a result of the glaciers that scrape the stone from the mountainside as they move over the face of the mountain. The river is huge and powerful as it winds its way through the valley.

Milky Way and Milk River form a protective border around the space we inhabit on this journey.

Today we hike from Phakding to Namche Bazar. It’s a difficult hike that will ascend 2,000 feet up into the mountains. Today is also Dina’s birthday. Dina is a 52 year-old nurse who is on this journey as a caregiver. Her mom was recently diagnosed with leukemia and Dina is caring a prayer flag in honor of her mom. Dina is also a yoga instructor and provides our group with a stretching routine each morning under the Himalayan sky. One of Dina’s unique features is a left hand with only 4 fingers – the result of a lawn mower accident as a child. She loves giving out “high 4’s” to members of our group.

Ruth is a 64 year-old sarcoma survivor. In order for the tumor to be resected, she had to have her left hand amputated at the mid forearm. She calls her foreshortened left arm “Stumper” as a sign of affection. Before undergoing the amputation she held a contest for family and friends to come up with a name for her 4-inch tumor. The winning entry was “Golaith.” She thought that the name aptly described her tumor because Golaith was “a seemingly invincible foe that was defeated by a neophyte who trusted in God.”

Ruth has a great sense of humor and puts all of us at ease with her many “one hand” jokes. (“Can I give you a hand?”) Her grace, grit and determination humble all of us as she hikes the uneven terrain with a full pack and a single hiking pole. She is very independent, but she does allow me to put sunscreen on her right arm since it’s pretty much impossible for someone to apply sunscreen to your right arm with your right hand!

Dina and Ruth develop an immediate bond. Two strong women made even stronger by their missing appendages. What they lack in fingers, they make up for in courage and determination.

Our hike today is also a bit of a Golaith. It is up and up and up. We cross some insanely high suspension bridges today and then climb a 1000-foot high winding “staircase.” Several members of the group were forced to dig deep today to get ‘er done.

Although I often describe our Above + Beyond Cancer group as “19 cancer survivors and 17 caregivers,” the truth is, we are truly a team of 36. On the mountain the labels fall away. The world is not a dichotomy of survivors and caregivers. It’s not a dichotomy of staff or client. We are one team. None of us is as good as all of us.

Marilyn is a 56 year-old woman from Ames, Iowa. She’s officially a “caregiver”, having come to Nepal in support of her friend, Kim, a 47 year-old survivor of both brain cancer and breast cancer. Marilyn has beautiful red hair and a friendly laugh. She’s a bit overweight, but she’s worked out diligently to get fit enough to be able to support her friend on this journey. Today was a challenge of epic proportion for her. The steep uphill climb into Namche was seemingly more than she could handle. Tears flowed as she tried to muster enough strength to continue.

The rest of us became a band of cheerleaders loud enough to support the Dallas Cowboys. We cheered, sang, hugged, pleaded, cajoled, pushed, pulled, lifted, tugged, and danced Marilyn up the mountain. Suzanne, a 48 year-old breast cancer survivor from Alabama walked a few feet ahead of Marilyn gently coaxing her forward with a syrup-sweet Southern drawl, “Come on, Baby Girl, if Suzanne from Alabama can do it, so can you.” That brought on a chorus of “Ol’ Suzanna,” from the cheerleading choir.

I walked beside Marilyn, grasping her rear belt loop and gently tugging her up with each step. “It’s just one more step, Marilyn. One more step, a million more times. Can you do one more step?”

“Yes,” she says. And she does. The Sherpas and I begin to chant, “One-More-Step,” as Marilyn continues her slow ascent.

I ask Marilyn who she’s climbing this mountain for. We have all brought along prayer flags that have been decorated in honor of loved ones who have died of cancer. “Whose prayer flag do you have with you today?” I ask.

“My mother’s,” she says. “She died of breast cancer when my children were young. I wish they could have gotten to know her. She was a wonderful woman.”

“Let’s climb the mountain in honor of your mom,” I say. “Can you take one more step for her?”

“Yes,” she says. And she does. As we reach the high point of the hike, the cheering squad is waiting for us with imaginary pom-poms pumping in support. A spontaneous dance party of celebration erupts.

After a few minutes of dancing, I quietly remove myself from the celebrants and observe the celebration from a comfortable distance. I stand next to our Sherpa team as they look on in amazement. Marilyn is smiling and dancing. Hugs are as bountiful as blossoms in spring. My heart swells and my eyes well as I struggle to fight back tears. I loose the struggle and soon I’m tasting the sweet salty flavor of emotion.

In truth, Marilyn wasn’t the only one suffering today. Others were suffering, too, but they were doing so much more quietly and less dramatically. Judith, a 59 year-old breast cancer survivor was slowly and quietly making her way up the mountain. Waves of nausea overtook her and she stopped to vomit at the side of the trail. She apologizes to those helping her and continues her quiet meditative journey up the mountain.

When I was told that Judith was having difficulty, I descended the trail to see if I could help. I found her quietly walking with Mary G on ones side of her and Mary L on the other. Both Marys are on this journey as caregivers and they are doing so with loving kindness. Judith stops her slow ascent, apologizes once more, and bends forward to vomit once more. Mary L takes off her bandana and gives it to Judith to wipe her mouth. Mary G offers Judith her water bottle. Judith quietly continues her journey and finally arrives at the lodge. She is enveloped in hugs. With tears in her eyes, she apologizes for being so slow and she thanks the two Marys.

“This has been a wonderful day,” Judith says. Her gentle smile says it is true.

At dinner this evening I ask Marilyn to say a blessing before we dine. Marilyn is Jewish. Yom Kippur has just ended and Marilyn reads to us from a book by Harold Kushner that focuses on the meaning of suffering. She says that after today, she has a new perspective on suffering. She reads, “Pain is the price we pay for being alive. We may not ever understand why we suffer or be able to control the forces that cause our suffering, but we can have a lot to say about what suffering does to us, and what sort of people we become because of it. Suffering can make us sensitive and compassionate.”

Judith is unable to join us at dinner. She’s in bed under heaps of blankets trying to will her body to rest. A makeshift “emesis basin” is on the floor beside the head of her bed. Dr. Charlie, Dr. Laurie, Dr. Leah and I all take turns checking on Judith, providing her nausea medicine, sips of electrolyte fluids and hugs. Her roommate, Yasmina, a caregiver from Des Moines, is a gentle and compassionate presence. Judith is concerned that that she will keep Yasmina awake tonight. Yasmina assures Judith that she cherishes her role as roommate and caregiver and there is nothing right now she would rather do than provide comfort to her friend.

I make “rounds” on all my “patients” before I turn in for the evening. All are resting quietly. I give Judith a tender hug and then I head off to find my bedroom. I pray that a night of rest will heal, strengthen and nurture us.

17 Responses to “One More Step and a “High Four””

  1. Beverly Lund

    Dr. Deming, what a heartwarming, teary entry in your journal today.
    PLEASE tell Marilyn that I know exactly how she felt and is feeling.
    SHE WILL complete this journey with the assistance, love, understanding,support and HUGS & HUGS from her teammates.
    I would love to meet Marilyn when you return. Reading this journal entry sounded like my experience in Kili. Marilyn and I have sooo much in common from red hair and being Jewish. I am so glad that she was able to share with the group Yom Kippur. Safe travels to all!

    Reply
  2. Hilarey Kirsner Leonard

    I am so inspired by the stories of all the climbers on this trek. I admire you all so much for taking on this huge challenge! My thoughts and prayers are with you for a safe journey.

    Reply
  3. Angela Renkoski

    Blessings on your journey and that of all the climbers on the trek. You are in my prayers daily! Such inspiration.

    Reply
  4. Cindy Torvik

    Keep the stories coming Doc! This was so beautiful. Takes me right back to the mountain in Tanzania! I think I met Marilyn in the airport when you left. You can do it Marilyn!! No one can climb that mountain without everyone!!! Thank you so much for sharing!

    Reply
  5. Stephanie Ross

    Dr. Deming – Thank you so much for your posts – and your incredible work – I love hearing how my amazing friend Ruth is doing. And today I got to see her! Thanks

    Reply
  6. Linda Hoskins

    Oh…such beautiful memories in spite of the difficulty…you all inspire me…I am following every step:). In fact I am presenting Everest 2011 to the 6th graders in the Albia District next week and I will give them updates about your journey as well. God speed my friends!

    Reply
  7. Kathy Wennihan

    You are all rocking. I’m so proud of everyone. KEEP IT GOING.

    Reply
  8. Steve Marting

    I don’t know how much more inspirational this can get. I’ve been following this journey every day and each day brings a new inspiration.Keep it up.I admire all of you as a team for taking on this great challenge. May you have the will and strength to continue. My
    thoughts and prayers are with you for a continued safe journey.

    Reply
  9. Debra Ristau

    My thoughts and prayers are will this amazing group. I look forward each day to read doc’s journal and the inspiring stories!! Please say “Happy Birthday” to my dear friend Dina! She is so awesome!! Safe travels.

    Reply
  10. Ted Kempf

    Dick keep working your magic. You make everyone stronger than they ever imagined and they love you for it.

    Reply
  11. Connie Duinink

    You are indeed a team as you journey up that mountain together! As I read Dr. Deming’s accounts, like Bev and Linda, I am recalling an ealier journey and knowing a bit of your struggles. When we get to the point that we simply can not continue in our own strength, we can see so much more clearly that God extends his right hand to help us in the loving and encouraging people he sends along side of us. Praying the Judith will emerge from her tent revived. Made me remember a sweet Mary that was there to walk beside me as well.

    Reply
  12. Brian Triplett

    Dr. Deming, Charlie and gang. Wonderful photos and storytelling. I know how difficult it is to hike all day, find time to write and then look for that damn internet connection on some slippery hillside! You’ve taken me back there to where it all began and I find myself very thankful to know first-hand the positive energy of your foundation. Keep up the great work. Fun to be in cozy civilization and learning of these fantastic stories and people!

    Cheers from Berlin.

    Brian

    Reply
  13. Ardyce Gustafson Rigg

    Such an exciting adventure and opportunity for personal understanding. Deciding to thrive is more than to survive. Thinking of the whole group and especially of Ruth, my sister, and her powerful spirit. Thanks for being her left hand, when she asks. (Which isn’t very often, I know.)

    Reply
  14. Alison Robertson

    WELL DONE all of you! You are doing awesome! Hang in there.
    Am looking forward to hearing more about your adventure when you get home Kim and Marilyn.

    Reply
  15. Angela Freese

    Each day I read these entries I think I can not be more surprised. Yet today once again your entry hits me right in the heart! As a cancer survivor and an obese woman I never thought I would be able to do amazing things like the things you write about. I started working out in July of this year. It is a slow and sometimes painful process but it is me being able to do something to help myself. And it is me, not radiation or chemo or some other kind of medicine activly fighting the cancer. If by contining to work out and loose weight helps me prevent my cancer from spreading it is completly worth every ache and pain I have. Reading these entrys makes us all feel like a part of the team and please know we are praying and cheering for all of you for each and everyone of you.

    Reply
  16. Wayne & Jamie

    Congratulation group continue to strive as you move forward to reach your goal. Ruth were thinking of you.
    Travel Safe!

    Reply
  17. PJ & Claudette McDonald

    Your courage, resilence and determination is remarkable. Keep trekking. Know that our thoughts and prayers are with each of you. We appreciate the pictures and daily journal of your challenging and rewarding experience.

    With love and prayers,
    PJ & Claudette

    Reply

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